Israeli leaders responded with apparent relief to the decision by the army’s chief legal officer to close an internal investigation into soldiers’ allegations of misconduct and abuse in Gaza.
The decision, by military judge advocate general Avichai Mendelblit, was announced by the Israel Defense Forces spokesman’s office March 30, 11 days after the investigation was first launched by the Military Police investigations unit. The announcement said a preliminary investigation had found the allegations “were based on hearsay and not first-hand experience.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak welcomed the decision the following day. “I was very happy to learn about the military advocate general’s report, in which he addresses the extensive rumors that have considerably damaged the IDF’s image both at home and abroad,” Barak said.
In his announcement Mendelblit said it was unfortunate that the soldiers, who discussed their Gaza experiences in private February 13 at a session that was later leaked verbatim to the media, had been careless about accuracy.
“It will be difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals [of the armed forces] in Israel and the world,” his statement said.
Barak echoed Mendelblit’s concerns. “There is no other army in the world that is as introspective as the IDF, that scrutinizes its conduct in such a genuine and serious way after an operation,” Barak said. “I’m happy these are the results, and that once again our claim that the IDF is the most moral army in the world… has proved truthful.”
The probe was launched in early March after those IDF soldiers were quoted telling cadets at a pre-military academy that combat troops in Gaza fired at unarmed Palestinian civilians and vandalized property. The army has barred those soldiers from speaking to the press. The allegations first surfaced in the media March 19.
IDF investigators said a soldier who alleged that a comrade was given orders to shoot an elderly woman had not witnessed such an event and “was only repeating a rumor he had heard.” They noted, on the other hand, that a woman who approached troops and was suspected of being a suicide bomber had been fired upon repeatedly to try to stop her from advancing at them.
Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel, who broke the soldiers’ story together with Ofer Shelah of Ma’ariv, responded to the army’s announcement in a column that sarcastically praised the “speed and efficiency” of the army’s 11-day investigation. He noted that in a recent investigation, probing a general who let his 14-year-old son drive a military vehicle and then tried to cover up when it crashed, “accident made its way from desk-drawer to desk-drawer over the course of almost 18 months.”
More seriously, Harel wrote: “There is no reason to cast doubt on the sincerity of the military advocate general, or on the thoroughness of the military police investigators. Nonetheless, it is unclear how they can be so certain that the combat soldiers’ testimonials were just a series of rumors and concoctions, while the soldiers were truthful during the investigations conducted by the military police and the Givati Brigade commander.”
The Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem, Yesh Din, Physicians for Human Rights and others issued a statement March 30, saying, “The speedy closing of the investigation immediately raises suspicions that [it] was merely the army’s attempt to wipe its hands of all blame for illegal activity.” The groups have asked for an independent investigation.